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The English Factory System

Karl Marx

London, April 10, 1857

The Reports of the Inspectors of Factories in the United Kingdom for 1856[a] contain detailed returns relating to factory statistics, such as the number of factories, the amount of horse-power employed, the quantity of machinery, and the number of persons set to work. Similar returns were ordered by the House of Commons in 1835, 1838 and 1850, the information being compiled from schedules filled up by the mill-owners. Ample materials are thus afforded for comparing different periods of the factory system, which, in its legal sense, comprises the manufactories only where steam or water-power is employed for the production of textile fabrics.

The most characteristic feature of the social history of the United Kingdom during the last six years is, undoubtedly, to be found in the rapid extension of that system.

The following are the numbers of factories at the dates of the last three returns[b]:

Cotton Factories 1,8191,9322,210
Woolen Factories1,3221,4971,505
Worsted Factories416501525
Flax Factories392393417
Silk Factories268277460

The average increase of factories, therefore, which from 1838 to 1850 had been at the rate of 32 per annum, was almost tripled from 1850 to 1856, when it reached the rate of 86 yearly. An analysis of the aggregate increase during either epoch is given in the following summary[c]:

Aggregate Increase from 1838 to 1850.Per Cent.
Cotton Factories6
Aggregate Increase from 1850 to 1856.Per Cent.
Cotton Factories14.2

From this table, it will be seen that during the former period the increase was confined to the cotton, woolen and worsted manufacture, while in the latter period it also embraces the flax and silk factories. The proportions in which the various branches share in the aggregate increase differ also in the two periods. During 1838-50, the principal increase took place in the worsted and woolen trade, the latter of which appears almost stationary from 1850-56, and the former falling back to a four times lesser speed of expansion. On the other hand, cotton and silk top the movement during the latter period, the silk manufacture occupying the first rank in the proportional increase, and the cotton manufacture when the absolute increase is considered.

The localities of this expansion have varied considerably, there taking place a migration, as it were, from one part of the country to the other. Hand in hand with the general increase, there goes a local decrease, amounting in many counties and boroughs to a complete extinction of manufactories before existing. The general law ruling these changes of decay as well as of growth is the same law which pervades modern industry in all its directions—the law of concentration. Thus Lancashire, and the parts of Yorkshire adjoining it—the principal seat of the cotton manufacture—have drawn the trade from other parts of the kingdom. The number of cotton factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire having increased from 1838-56 by adding 411 to the previous number, they have decreased by 52 in the counties of Lanark (Glasgow), Renfrew (Paisley), and Antrim. So, too, the woolen trade is becoming concentrated in Yorkshire; while 200 woolen manufactories have been added there, we find a corresponding decrease of 82 in Cornwall, Devon, Gloucester, Monmouth, Somerset, Wilts, Wales and Clackmannan. The worsted manufacture is almost exclusively confined to Yorkshire, in which county there has been an increase of 107 factories. The flax-trade is now more vigorous in Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom; but the increase of 59 flax factories in Antrim, Armagh, Down and Tyrone, is accompanied by a decrease in Yorkshire of 31, in Devonshire, Dorsetshire and Gloucestershire of 9, and in Fifeshire of 18. To the increase of 76 silk factories in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Notting-ham and Gloucestershire, there corresponds a decrease by 13 in Somersetshire. In some instances, the decay in one manufacturing branch is compensated by the growth of another, so that the industrial migrations would appear to be only a more definite working out of the principle of the division of employments on a large scale. Yet, on the whole, this is not the case—the progress of the system rather tending to establish a division between industrial and agricultural provinces. In England, for instance, the southern counties of Wilts, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucester, are being rapidly divested of their manufactures, while the northern counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Warwick, Nottingham, are strengthening their industrial monopoly. Of the aggregate increase of factories in the United Kingdom from 1838 to 1856, reaching the number of 900, Lancashire alone claims 360, Yorkshire 344, Warwick 71 and Nottingham 46—the increase in the two last-named counties having been caused by the introduction of improved machinery in two special trades—the adaptation of power to the stocking-frame at Nottingham, and the weaving of ribbons by power at Coventry.

From the increase in the number of factories must be distinguished the increase in the amount of horse-power employed, the latter not only depending on the addition of new mills, but also on the erection of more powerful engines in the old ones, the substitution of the steam-engine for water-power, the addition of steam-power to the waterwheel, and other similar contrivances. The following table contains a comparison of the nominal power of the factories in 1838, 1850 and 1856[d]:

Horse-power employed in the factories in the United Kingdom.

Great as the increase of the power apparent from the figures undoubtedly is 59,366 horse-power between 1838 and 1856 it falls, nevertheless, much below the actual additional force available and in motion for manufacturing purposes. The figures given in the return all relate to the nominal power only of the engines and wheels, and not to the power actually employed or capable of being employed. The modern steam-engine of 100 horse-power is capable of being driven at a much greater force than formerly, arising from improvements in its arrangements, the capacity and construction of the boilers, etc.; and thus its nominal power cannot be considered as other than an index from which its real capabilities may be calculated. Mr. Nasmyth, the civil engineer, after an explanation of the nature of recent improvements in the steam-engine, by which the same engine can be made to perform more work with a diminished consumption of fuel, sums up results as follows[e]:

"From the same weight of steam-engine machinery, we are now obtaining at least 50 per cent. more work performed, on the average, and, in many cases, the identical steam-engines which, in the days of the restricted speed of 220 feet per minute, yielded 50 horse-power, are now yielding upward of 100."

By comparing the increase of horse-power with that of factories, the concentration of the woolen industry in some few hands becomes evident. Though in 1856 there were but eight more woolen factories than in 1850, yet the power employed in them had increased 3,757 horses during the same period. The same tendency to concentration is evidently working in the cotton, worsted and flax-spinning factories. The number of spindles in the United Kingdom amounting respectively in 1850 and 1856 to 25,638,716 and to 33,503,580, the average number of spindles in each factory was as follows[f]:


In the weaving factories, it is true, the tendency seems to be to an extension of the trade among many occupiers rather than to its concentration among a -few, the total number of looms being 369,205 in 1856, against 301,445 in 1850, while the average number employed by each manufacturer is less in 1856 than in 1850. However, this apparent deviation from the general tendency of the British factory system is easily accounted for by the fact that in the weaving department the introduction of the factory system is of comparatively recent date, and has not yet quite superseded the hand-loom system. In 1836, steam power was employed almost exclusively for cotton looms, or for fabrics mixed with cotton; but some years later there was a rapid increase in the number of power-looms for all fabrics, for fabrics of woolen, worsted, flax and silk, and this increase continues to the present time. The following statement shows the increase of power-looms since 1836[g]:

Cotton    108,751249,627298,847

The increase of cotton looms resulted from the extension of trade, not from the appliance of power to articles formerly woven by hand solely; but in the other fabrics power is now applied to the carpet loom, the ribbon loom, and the linen loom, where it had hitherto been little used. The application of power to wool combing, which has come extensively into operation since the introduction of the combing machine, especially of Lister's, has also had the effect to throw a large number of men out of work.

The extent of the increased power of production is clearly shown by comparing the export returns. In 1850, there being in activity 1,932 cotton factories, the average value of cotton goods and yarn exported in the three years ending January 5, 1850, was, in round numbers, £24,600,000. If the 2,210 cotton factories in activity in 1856 had produced goods or yarn in the same proportion only as the factories of 1850, the value of the exports would be £28,000,000. Yet the average value of these exports, in the three years ending December 31, 1855, amounted to about £31,000,000. The case with the woolen and worsted factories is similar. We see, then, that while the quantity of machinery kept in motion by each horse-power has considerably increased, the number of persons employed for each horse-power has remained stationary, viz.: 4 persons, on an average. This is shown by the following table[h]:

Total number of persons employed.

The aggregate working population of 682,497, appears small indeed, if it is considered that the number of handloom weavers and their families, in 1838, alone amounted to about 800,000 per-sons. The following table shows the centesimal proportion of the different classes of hands employed.[i]

under 13
bet'n 13 & 18
above 13
above 18
1838     5.916.155.222.8

Between 1838 and 1850 the number of children employed had increased, but not in proportion to the general increase. The increase in the number of children between 1850 and 1856 is very considerable, amounting, as it does, to 10,761, of which 9,655 have been absorbed by the cotton trade. It may still be mentioned that the philanthropic law of 1844 permitted children to be employed in factories at 8 years of age, while prior to that it was illegal to employ them under 9 years of age.[324]

Written on April 10, 1857
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4999, April 28, 1857


[a] Reports of the Inspectors of Factories to Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, for the Half Year Ending 30th April and 31st October 1856.—Ed.

[b] "Half-Yearly Joint Report of the Inspectors of Factories", Reports of the Inspectors ... for the Half Year Ending 31st October 1856, p. 11.—Ed.

[c] Ibid., p. 12.—Ed.

[d] Ibid., p. 30.—Ed.

[e] Ibid., p. 14, Note.—Ed.

[f] Ibid., p. 16.—Ed.

[g] Ibid.—Ed.

[h] Ibid., p. 31.—Ed.

[i] Ibid., p. 32.—Ed.

[324] A reference to the Act to Regulate the Labour of Children and Young Persons in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom (1833) and the Act to Amend the Laws Relating to Labour in Factories (1844) on the employment of children, juveniles and women in the English textile industry.

Under the 1833 law children from nine to thirteen years of age worked nine hours a day (48-hour week) and had to attend school (two hours a day). The working day for juveniles from fourteen to eighteen years of age was twelve hours a day (69-hour week).

The 1844 law forbade the employment of children under eight years of age and introduced for children from eight to thirteen years half-shift work (six and a half hours a day). It restricted for the first time the working day for women: it was the same as for juveniles under the 1833 law.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.255-261), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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